Sandra Adair never expected to direct. She was busy mastering her craft as an editor, bringing filmmakers' visions to life. Then she had a studio visit with an artist who was taking a risk of his own, and she understood that together they had a story to tell.
"It just flipped my switch on," Adair says from her home in Austin. "There was no way to film into this very complex, multifaceted character, with unbelievable talent and body of work, without jumping in with both feet."
Within weeks, she was directing her first documentary, The Secret Life of Lance Letscher.
Before getting into her subject's art, it's important to understand exactly how good Adair is as an editor. Her thoughtful use of style and timing has woven together every Richard Linklater film since 1993. And when she turned the seemingly impossible task of editing Boyhood — a 12-year-long saga of growing up — into treasured cinematic reality, a lot of people noticed. She was even nominated for an Academy Award.
Meanwhile in the fine art world, Lance Letscher commands paper without rival. Sourced from old children's books, magazines and scribbled cast-offs, his intricate collages are a delicate and dizzying plunge into his psyche, manifested as doomed floating train tracks, bodies built of shoes and wild-eyed Warner Brothers cartoons transfixed on ill intentions.
Dallasites may have seen his work before. Dallas' Nancy Whitenack of Conduit Gallery has continually repped his work since early in his career. She found him back when he was still doing subtle, reigned-in stuff, before he let go and allowed the work to get wild. Now, his art is collected all over the world.
What's so lovely about this film is how the two talents overlay to complement one another. Letscher is a fascination. Adair allows his personal stories and philosophies to unfold as she pans the camera slowly in, revealing infinite layers of secret detail in the work itself. She clips quickly through footage as Letscher nimbly extracts his own paper images with an X-Acto knife.
The film's score, an auditory oomph provided by Austin composing talent Graham Reynolds, shovels viewers deeper still. "It worked to propel the pace and the energy of the film, but also it was very inspirational for me to develop a style of my storytelling using that music," Adair says.
Much of that is pulled from an album Reynolds cut a few years back, a triple concerto called The Difference Engine, which brings aboard Austin staples The Octopus Project, among others. It tells the story of Charles Babbage's brilliant attempt to make the first computer, before the world was ready.
The end result of all this visual and auditory layering — all this snipping, arranging and just-so positioning — is a love letter to the creative process, as told by three masters of their respected crafts. See it at the Magnolia on Sunday or Monday during the Dallas International Film Festival.
Magnolia Theatre: 2:15 p.m. Sunday, April 2, and 1:30 p.m. Monday, April 3
"I was in middle school when it happened," says Bomb City director Jameson Brooks. "I remember always driving by Western Plaza [Shopping Center] and thinking: 'This is where that punk rocker died.'"
The story has been passed around rock 'n' roll circles like folklore ever since Brian Deneke was murdered in Amarillo back in 1997.
The horrific crime resonated with all who existed on society's fringe. Beneath Deneke's worn leather and frayed patches, he was a sensitive artist, a musician, a loving son and a guy friends turned to for advice. The jock who ran him over, crushing him, never hesitated — much less looked for humanity.
Instead, he jammed on the gas and said "I'm a ninja in my Caddy."
That football player got probation, although he later violated it and was sent to prison for five years. Deneke's family never saw justice. Amarillo became tagged as "The Town Without Pity."
That imbalance has been weighing on Sheldon Chick (writer, producer), Brooks (writer, director) and Major Dodge (producer) for the last 20 years, so they decided to dig deep into the story, bring it back to life and let a new generation discover a young man, stolen too soon.
This is Bomb City — it's shot largely around Dallas — and DIFF will be its world premiere.
The film is especially personal for Chick and Brooks, who still have longstanding ties with the windy Texas town. And since first meeting with Brian's parents, all three filmmakers have gotten close to the Denekes.
They're talking about what that's like, getting personal with your subjects, as Dodge remembers how and when the project's tone shifted form for him. Initially, he'd thought purely in cinematic terms: Wouldn't it look stunning to see these mohawked punks in those dusty open spaces? That sky, the dirt, framing their tough-seeming exteriors? Then, he sat down with Brian's dad, two fathers speaking across a table. For Deneke "it was like it just happened yesterday," Dodge says.
Instantly, it all changed. "It became: I want to get your son's story out there," he says.
"All these years later, he has no closure on it," Dodge explains. "There's really no justice for Brian. [The Denekes] really didn't have the money to get the right attorney and really fight this thing. As I left that meeting on that day, I knew it was no longer if we could tell that story, but when."
Dodge, Brooks and Chick sneaked cameos from Brian's real-life brother and best friends into the movie. Family photos of his mom and dad hang in the living room. Those who knew Brian are driving in from Amarillo to see it, celebrate his life and somehow manage to relive his death, this time on a big screen.
Dodge says the decision to show the crime was made early on. "To this day, none of us can watch that scene without choking up." But still, they felt it was important for audiences to see what this football player got away with, and part of that required looking the devil in the eye. "We have to tell it how it is," Brooks says. "It's flat-out murder."
Now wrapped and edited, there are still great shots of punks in cow fields, but this is Brian's story, sent as a lesson to us all: a cautionary tale about the dangers of affluenza and those who enable it.
See the much-anticipated film starring Dave Davis (Logan, The Big Short) as Brian Deneke at its world premiere on Friday. DIFF director James Faust has already predicted beyond max capacities, so buy your tickets early: This one's a big deal.
Magnolia Theatre: 7 p.m. Friday, March 31, and 5 p.m. Saturday, April 1
Wringing Yuks from Tears
Mustang Island begins by blindfolding your emotions then spinning them around. You watch as Bill (Macon Blair) goes through a Job-like undoing, getting knocked to the very bottom all before the titles lift. You paw through the darkness with him, feeling empathetic, concerned ... and then guilty, because you're laughing — uncontrollably — at his pain.
"Does this make me a horrible person?" you wonder.
Probably. Now buckle up: This truck's heading to the beach.
Writers Craig Elrod (director) and Nathan Smith (cinematographer) wanted to establish this as a safe place, right off the bat. So, they shot in black-and-white to give their imagined world a sense of removal, their characters more freedom, and to assure the audience that it's OK to laugh.
Then, they build the rest out. And that's when things really get going.
On its surface, the film follows a rom-com trajectory. But Elrod and Smith take every opportunity to subvert the narrative. They've replaced central "gabby gal pals" with three mostly silent everymen. They've written a wonderful female character (Lee Eddy) as the only voice of clear reason, without sacrificing her sense of humor. They leverage the unsaid, rather than pumping the thing full of dialog. And then they packed those silences with utterly absurd moments, perfectly timed physical gags, hard puns and ugly-crying, all to keep their characters from wandering too close to emotional intimacy.
"I think that's the goal," Smith says, "to be able to turn the sound off and still get 75 percent of the movie." To help them get there they watched a lot of old Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder flicks on mute to see how the greats did it. Then, they created a lovably eccentric cast of characters with no real villains.
"We try to find characters who have big, but clumsy hearts, who kind of stumble their way through the situation and usually make everything worse for themselves," Elrod explains.
In Mustang Island (shot in Galveston) that's Bill. Played by suddenly everywhere Macon Blair (Green Room, I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Into the Great Who Knows!), Bill's hellbent on convincing the girl who dumped him that's he's worth another go. After hearing she's convalescing in Mustang Island, he tricks his friend and brother into taking him.
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Then, life happens. It gets weird and lovely and a little melancholy, but throughout it all you can't stop laughing.
"To me that's the most honest comedy," Elrod says, "the kind that comes out of sad, dark moments for people."
Join Elrod, Smith and the cast for Mustang Island's world premiere at DIFF, before they start on their next project. "We're in the middle of the script," Elrod confides, "trying to figure out what's funny about death."
Magnolia Theatre: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, and 9:45 p.m. Sunday, April 2